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Feature: Ruussaar in Eastern Ukraine, Part 3 | Mariupol

Ruussaar traveled to Eastern Ukraine in February 2018.
Ruussaar traveled to Eastern Ukraine in February 2018. Source: Philippe Desmazes/AFP/Scanpix

In the third feature of his four-part travel series, ERR's Ainar Ruussaar describes his destination, Mariupol, a historic city, resort town on the Sea of Azov, and industrial center all in one.

Almost 78 years ago, on the eve of Midsummer 1940, Comrade Andrei arrived in Tallinn, where he helped carry out a communist coup. Andrei was born in this city on the Sea of Azov 44 years earlier that subsequently bore his name, Zhdanov, until 1989, when it got its own name back: Mariupol.

In 2014, 74 years after Comrade Andrei's arrival and the communist coup, Russian-led putschists did it again. Or rather, Russian-led forces whose direct involvement in the war for Eastern Ukraine Russia still denies to this day. Ukrainian forces drove the occupants out of the city, and today Mariupol has its old quiet life back, at least that is the impression.

The city has seen turbulent times. In the Second World War, the Red Army and the German Wehrmacht took turns occupying it, reducing vast parts to little more than rubble. Two special operations by Nazi German forces also completely wiped out Mariupol's Jewish population.

There are places that seem to be cursed. In January 2015, insurgent forces shelled the city with the help of Russian-made truck-mounted Grad rockets that just like plenty of the insurgents' equipment had appeared seemingly from nowhere. Ukraine bared its teeth and pushed the occupants beyond the city limits. Still, 30 residents of the city were buried who hadn't worn a uniform and weren't connected with the ongoing conflict.

It seems unbelievable, but it was here, where the city was built later, that the Zaporozhian Cossacks wrote their legendary response to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire, made world-famous by painter Ilja Repin. The people of Mariupol don't believe in the legend.

And they don't know about the involvement of Andrei Zhdanov in the occupation of Estonia by the Red Army in 1940 either. Some of the younger people I meet in the city are surprised to hear that Estonia was ever a part of the Soviet Union. They remember their parents talking about the Baltic States as the Soviet West, like Poland or Czechoslovakia or Hungary.

Ilja Repin's Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire. Author: The Yorck Project/Wikimedia Commons

Mariupol is an industrial city with a huge metal industry and a large port. It is Ukraine's tenth-largest city. Two enormous steel mills churn out railway tracks and blocks of steel that make up for a large part of Ukraine's exports. The plants have impressive names like Azovstal ("Azov Steel"), Illich Steel and Iron Works, and Azovmash, the country's largest machine-building company. In the late 2000s, unemployment was at 2 percent or less. There is plenty of work.

Main entrance to the Mariupol plant of Illich Steel and Iron Works. Author: Ainar Ruussaar/ERR

Being a journalist, of course I try to get into one of the steel mills. But I'm told everywhere I as that I would need a special permit issued by the mayor. For two weeks I try to get an interview with Mayor Vadym Boychenko, to no effect. It's a big city, there's plenty to do, nobody has time. It's different in Tallinn, where I can get an interview with the mayor on the next day with nothing more needed than a single phone call.

Mariupol is a Russian-speaking city, though officially the Russian minority only amounts to about half of the city's residents. The remainder are Ukrainians, along with a handful of ethnic Greeks.

Not too long ago, Ukrainian media published secret Soviet environmental reports in which Mariupol, called Zhdanov at the time, figured as the third most polluted city in the USSR after Novokuznetsk and Magnitogorsk.

I don't know if that is still the case.* Though I do notice the fog, I also notice state-of-the-art shopping malls and eat what is potentially the best Ukrainian borscht in the world for practically no money at all. And the waterfront promenade on the Sea of Azov in summer? Matchless, I think.

* Mariupol still leads Ukraine in the volume of emissions of harmful substances, though they have fallen by about half over the last 15 years. Because the output of its industrial plants is constant, so are the city's environmental problems. The steel mills, built in the 1930s without considering pollution, are located so that the plants' emissions are pushed towards the city. Concentrations of substances like ammonia, phenol, formaldehyde, fluoric hydrogen, hydrogen sulphide, and a number of others are still many times over the pollution limits e.g. the European Union applies. (Ed.)


Ainar Ruussaar (*1966) is an Estonian journalist and until 2017 was a member of the management of Estonian Public Broadcasting. Ruussaar's career spans three decades and began a few years before Estonia regained its independence in 1991, still under Soviet occupation. He is one of Estonia's longest-serving and most recognized news journalists.

Ruussaar traveled to East Ukraine in February 2018 as part of a training program for local journalists, run by SA Eesti Idapartnerluse Keskus and financed by the Estonian Ministry of Foreign affairs in cooperation with the United States and Flanders.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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